An editor's response to charges of fake news
Getting it right. This is not such an easy thing.
If you and I went to, say, the same piano recital and got together later with friends to talk about it, they'd probably hear something different from you than they would from me.
Online resources for spotting fake newsHere are some good resources on the web if you're looking to determine if something is a hoax or if you want tips for how to spot hoaxes yourself.
• Snopes.com (general purpose rumor analyzer): True or false answers, plus evidence they collected that led to that conclusion.
• Politifact.com (political fact-checker): They assess statements made by politicians as true, false, half true, half false or the dreaded "pants on fire." Some conservatives say the "half" answers tend to favor liberal thinkers.
• FirstDraftNews.com (nonprofit dedicated to debunking fake news and teaching people how to sleuth on their own)
• BuzzFeed.com (general purpose myth busters)
• TheNewsLiteracyProject.org (contains curriculums for schools to teach kids to be more savvy about the information they get): Carries an up-to-date newsletters on the latest in misappropriated or faked content.
Here are two Twitter accounts that debunk altered photos.
You might describe the mood and ambience. I might describe the technique.
But beyond that, neither of us would describe the recital the way the pianist would.
In fact, even if we had experience playing the piano ourselves, neither of us could fully understand the effort that went into the performance the way the pianist who sweated through the preparation would.
The pianist would bring the view from the stage. We would provide the views from the balcony.
Three views. At least partly different. All accurate within the limits of their perspectives. And all inevitably incomplete.
The pianist wouldn't see everything we see. And we wouldn't see everything the pianist sees.
Getting it right is not such an easy thing.
But it starts with a wish to get it right. Not with a goal of getting elected or promoting a product or winning an argument. It's hard to get it right if you get up in the morning with a goal of skewering the president or settling a score or taking a shot at an opponent.
This is not to argue that, say, politicians or partisan media are inherently deceitful. Most are good and caring people. But fundamentally, their objective is to get you to take their side, not to help you see the whole picture.
If your objective isn't the unvarnished truth, then there are times when you have a conflict with the truth.
I have biases just like everybody has biases. So do the people I work with. And to provide you with honest coverage, we have an obligation to you to challenge ourselves constantly. Are we being fair? Are we being objective? Are we covering all sides? Are we seeing beyond our blind spots? We have an obligation to courageous self-examination in this regard.
We put enormous effort into that, more than I think the public fully appreciates. As a matter of doctrine, we work to get the other side even when the other side doesn't want to be gotten. We take into account that most tips come from someone with a vested interest or an ax to grind. We are stringent in identifying sources. Our reporting does not rush to judgment. We edit for fairness. A few months ago, a group of our editors systematically examined the coverage we get from our wire services so we could improve on the balance. We try to give stories the appropriate play that will put them into proper perspective.
One of the jobs of each day's news coverage is to give you a reflection of your world. That world isn't all good or all bad; it's a mixture. Our coverage should reflect that mixture.
Most days I feel like we do our jobs well. Some days, I wish we did them better. Getting it right is not such an easy thing. And not always black and white.
But here's the central point I would like you to consider: Unlike those with vested interests, I don't come to work with an agenda other than a fundamental wish to contribute to the good of the community. And the people I work with don't, either. We make a conscious effort to avoid the undue influence of our perspectives. Objectivity, like perfection, is impossible to reach but not impossible to reach toward, and we're always reaching.
The bigger errors, in my view, are those of omission rather than commission -- things we don't see from the balcony that the pianist can see from the stage.
In an interesting way, that fundamental distinction between stage and balcony parallels the roles of reporter and editor.
Years ago, I read an exquisite summary of those roles by a writing coach at the legendary Boston Globe.
A writer's job, he said, is to get close. An editor's job is to provide the distance.
Regrettably, as much as I revere his lesson, I've long since forgotten the name of that coach. But his message sticks with me like skin to muscle.
We are, all of us, imperfect.
The reporter can sometimes get too close to the story to step back and see all the implications or the unanswered questions. The editor is there to help the reporter see them.
We try to get it right. That is not such an easy thing. But to us, it's the only thing. It's what we strive to do each day.